Saturday, June 07, 2008


Wow -- Koreans DO Have Mad Cow Disease and Obviously Suck at Defender

Obviously. The American Ambassador makes a perfectly reasonable comment, which is completely MISTRANSLATED, as anyone with a decent knowledge of either language should know, and instead of back off, the Korean government says that the US should "speak more carefully." Huh? Vershbow DID speak carefully and diplomatically -- the Korean government should hire better translators. Quoting from Robert's page, in the original English:

"So we hope that Koreans will begin to learn more about the science and about the facts of American beef and that this issue can be addressed constructively. We believe there is a lot of work ahead in getting people to pay more attention to the science and the facts of the matter."

I see what happened. When he said "learn more about the science and about the facts of American beef," in a language that has no articles, Koreans get tripped up by it all the time. "The science" was mistranslated as the concept of "science" itself. So the translator parsed that as "learn more about science and about the facts of American beef."

A minor translation error, but a major misunderstanding. Vershbow was NOT saying that Koreans don't understand science itself, but was saying that people should learn the facts -- in that context, "the science of American beef" in terms of meaning "the facts of the matter" most certainly does not mean "science" as a field or mode of thinking. Still, don't let the facts, or what he actually said stop anyone. Why should they? Quoting Robert's post again:

"UDP chairman Sohn Hak-kyu said at a party executive meeting today, “For Ambassador Vershbow to say ‘Koreans should learn a little more about science’ is an insult to all Korean citizens… Because the Lee Myung-bak administration took a humilating posture towards the United States, an arrogant and impudent statement was made.” He then called the ambassador “very rude” for an earlier phone call in which he told Sohn that he was disappointed and that the UDP head’s statement were causing public insecurity."

Has it actually gotten so bad that reality itself is being distorted? Vershbow said nothing inflammatory and was diplomatic, and was calm and collected as a diplomat should be. And rather than admit that the Korean government made the mistake vis a vis a bad translation to which they completely overreacted, this is actually being pushed into the realm of policy?

Now, as the Korean government should be concerned about the fact that it is completely unnecessarily about to throw millions or even billions of dollars of trade in other industries (including beef) into disarray because of the actions of a few radical protesters, who've spread disinformation and outright lies -- now, government officials and translators can't even back off from a complete mistranslation?

These are reasonable people? These are government officials? These people are the nation's media?

If it wasn't true before, it's definitely true now -- the Koreans who matter the most: from government suits, media fools, and disaffected left-wing activists and cattle growers who are pulling out students from class now and citizens who really have more of a beef with an old-fashioned, unresponsive governance style than American beef -- now, these people have become completely unreasonable.

UnREASONable, as in the word and concept "reason," which Sir Francis Bacon expounded upon, and for better or worse, and through a wily combination of both inductive and deductive logic predicated on both reliable information and careful observation of reality, is what Koreans have taken so much offense at being accused of NOT possessing -- now, the government position is that yes, Koreans are NOT a reasonable people. Don't believe me? He said it himself:

"I think the American people, US government and you must understand our unique culture… In order to resolve this, both governments need to work with sincerity." [And I concur with Robert's excellent translation.]

Aaaaargh! As I've always lecture in my American and Korean "culture" classes -- in Korea, when I hear the word "culture," I reach for my gun. The worst deployment of the term is in the obfuscating idea of "cultural differences," a card that usually gets pulled when an Korean and non-Korean have reached an impasse, but no longer have the energy to duke it out anymore.

It's a cop-out, and the result of being too intellectually lazy (or incapable) of getting to the heart of the disagreement, which can generally be defined in concrete terms, rather than the meaningless cop-out of "culture." It's like the smart bomb in Defender -- when the humans have become mutants, the alien ships have morphed and get scary, and when those zingy flying saucers show up, you just freak and hit that special button. Then everything goes away.

Problem is, you only get two smart bombs at the beginning of the level, and they generally only delay the inevitable -- if you suck at Defender, you simply suck at Defender. And once you've started panicking with a smart bomb of any kind -- whether it be of an extremely advanced future technology that can focus amazingly powerful-yet-concentrated blasts of energy at specific targets throughout your field of view, or its a stupefyingly simplistic statement that relies on reductionist notions of cultural essentialism and obviates the use of specific and useful information as a means of shutting down any further discussion -- once you've started that strategy, things ain't gonna be so good.

And telling the US, which hasn't done anything wrong in this case, to "tread lightly" as a meta-response to a TRANSLATION ERROR is certainly a cake taker. And the funny thing is that the mistranslated words that Vershbow was mistakenly said to have used are actually now being borne out in truth: now, it's been said that this is not about science or, I assume the facts, but emotions and the fact that the rest of the world must understand "Korea's unique culture" (because the rest of the world's cultures aren't unique, right?).

Ahh, petty cultural nationalism and irrationality do indeed still rule the day in South Korea. I hate to be the voice of reason -- well, actually, I don't -- but this won't end well.

I've played enough Defender to know that.

I'll make it simple. You don't need to be actually waving a flag or be singing "Fucking USA" for it to be deeply rooted in nationalist sentiment. The anti-FTA farmers rallies before these were rabidly anti-American, and they even assaulted a Swiss tourist whom they mistook for an American. In the same way the anti-FTA people let the European version and a similar deal off with nary a blip, this wouldn't draw nearly the crowds it does if this were Australian beef. Sure -- there's been a strong anti-US sentiment that's been building, boiling over, and now simmering for years -- and suddenly, nationalism's got nothing whatsoever to do with it. Riiiight.

And I do hear them, and I've already said several times in several places that this is also largely about dissatisfaction with an inflexible government and a lack of faith on the rule of law at home. So don't try to paint my argument as a kneejerk, one-trick pony piece of argumentation. Because I've already said that anti-US sentiment is the backdrop here, but not the only issue.

And I read Fast Food Nation years ago, when it first came out. I love how you recommend these books, such as "Fruits" or "Fast Food Nation" as if you're dropping some knowledge on me. For your info, one of the reasons I think this is a ridiculous overreaction is because yes, the beef industry is inherently dirty, and has been for a long time. Your words "dodgy factory-style beef pumped full of hormones and antibiotics" aptly describe Korean beef as well, unless you actually believe the Korean line that hanwoo is some organically-grown, disease-free, meat-as-manna from heaven line you hear.

The reason that I find this ridiculous is precisely BECAUSE I've said both here and in the podcast that AMERICAN BEEF IS NO LESS OR MORE DIRTY THAN KOREAN BEEF. I'm not a booster for the beef industry, nor do I give two flying forks about hanwoo versus Montana corn-fed, other than the latter is much cheaper, and this ridiculous issue used as a political wedge isn't helping the peninsula any.

Great. You think it's helped create a shift in politics. Perhaps that's a good thing. But on the other hand, I think trade liberalization is a good thing in the long run for the Korean economy, hurt as that might right now. There it is. A perfectly reasonable opinion, but one that isn't served by your extremization of what I say, putting words in my mouth, and straw man arguments.

I addressed your previous comments points. I clearly explained my position, which was not nearly so unilateral as you obviously took it. Basically, you're saying "a million people in the streets" (really?) means I should change my point-of-view on the overall impact the FTA will have on the Korean economy. It doesn't.

The reason I think this is ridiculous is that this is the wrong way to deal with the FTA as a problem, over an issue that really isn't that important, frankly. If the FTA itself was the issue, then it should have been dealt with as the key issue at the appropriate time. Yes, there are a lot of factors and a lot of aspects of the goverment Koreans are dealing with and are rightfully angry about -- but an ennui over not really having anyone better to vote for, or bristling at 2MB's rough governance style, or a lack of faith in the rule of law that makes real "free trade" style "choice" impossible in a Korea that realistically couldn't keep the beef supplies separated in any believable way (I'd be waiting for the first story of some restaurant in Mapo that buys cheaper American beef and marks it up 4x and calls it "hanwoo") -- those aren't the US's responsibilities.

You may disagree with me on those points, or on a million others until the cows come home -- and I'd rather not, since we seem to be sitting on opposite sides of the fence and I'd like to keep my carpals under control -- but your straw man grandstanding NOTwithstanding, no, I don't think this helps either the Korean economy, nor Korea's reputation as a nation in touch enough with its citizenry to be able to sign agreements of any kind and stick to them.

Yes, I am being sarcastic here. I used a video game analogy, fer Pete's sake. Do I think this is ridiculous? Yes. Do I think that people suddenly freaking out about a product they've been eating for years and is no different today than it was when American beef was on the market, or the obvious fact that Koreans are already and STILL eating American beef that's on the black market from Yongsan right NOW? Yes.

Yes, I think this is mass hysteria, and the reaction isn't even remotely close to rational or commensurate with the actual danger. As I said, if Koreans were so concerned about dying untimely deaths, they'd wear their seat belts.

I think the cons of this will leave Korea in the state it did after the middle school girls' incident: sure, more people participated in something, or felt more empowered, but over something that was basically based on misinformation and misunderstandings, and which generally left anti-foreign, anti-American, and other less savory tastes on the national palate. I don't think it was a positive or intelligent debate then, since it was set by the lowest-common-denominator of simplistic notions of perceived slights to national pride and was symptomatic of a general reaction to an arrogant US, an arrogant White House, and an arrogant President.

In the end, a lot of school kids were brainwashed by irresponsible teachers (I conducted interviews with over 50 Fulbright ETA's as part of my research on the Korean education system in 2003, who were working in schools places all over the country, and was surprised by the stories of blatant racist nationalism, with teachers teaching students to believe all sorts of incredible things too lengthy and irritating to repeat here), a news media that got into the habit of vilifying foreigners as a matter of habit, from murderous Chinee to rapacious white teachers, and all sorts of other malarkey.

I rail against this because Korea in the 2000's is decidedly different from the Korea I remember in the 1990's, and I think the Ohno issue, middle school girls, base relocation, and the present beef scare takes place at such a low level of discourse and complexity precisely because of irresponsible reporting coupled with Koreans' propensity to see things in terms of national, black-and-white terms.

If you don't think so, cool. That's where I'm coming from on the issue. But I think that my POV is far from kneejerk, simplistic, or without having been made with due consideration.

Posted by: The Metropolitician | June 06, 2008 at 05:08 PM

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